:: Friday, September 19, 2003 ::

Brent East and the Left

Brent East By-Election Result
Sarah Teather (Lib Dem) 8,158 39.1%
Robert Evans (Labour) 7,040 33.8%
Uma Fernandes (Conservative) 3,368 16.2%
Noel Lynch (Green) 638 3.1%
Brian Butterworth (Socialist Alliance) 361 1.7 %
Khidori Fawzi Ibrahim (Public Services Not War) 219 1.1%
Winston McKenzie (Independent) 197 0.9%
Kelly McBride (Independent) 189 0.9%
Harold Immanuel (Independent Labour) 188 0.9%
Brian Hall (UK Independence Party) 140 0.7%
Iris Cremer (Socialist Labour Party) 111 0.5%
Neil Walsh (Independent) 101 0.5%
Alan Howling Lord Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 59 0.3%
Aaron Barschack (No description) 37 0.2%
Jiten Bardwaj (No description) 35 0.2%
Rainbow George Weiss (WWW.XAT.ORG) 11 0.1%

The victory of the lib-dems in Brent shows just how vulnerable Tony Blair has become. Whilst it is quite true that those voting in by-elections often choose to punish the incumbent government, this is Labour's first by-election defeat for 15 years. New Labour must have hoped for a win here, albeit a narrow one. After all, they must have reasoned that the economy is in a strong position with stable inflation and the lowest unemployment figures since 1975. Of course New Labour's neo-liberal economic policy means that whilst there is wealth in society, it is distributed unevenly, to the benefit of the rich. Many of the new jobs are low paid, often at the pitifully low national minimum wage.

But this result was not primarily about the economy. It was about the tarnished reputation of the government. Tarnished by their enthusiastic team-up with Bush's imperial project in Iraq, tarnished by their dismissal of mass popular opposition to the Iraq war and of course tarnished by Kelly, Hutton and the lies and spin about WMD's that were the pretext for war.

As the Guardian noted "In the shadow of Iraq and the Hutton inquiry, Labour found itself struggling against the perception that the government is untrustworthy, coupled with general disquiet over the state of public services." Yeah, plenty of money to bomb and occupy Iraq, not so much to sort out the health service or our appalling public transport system. And what investment there is comes in large part from PFI/PPP schemes, i.e. privatisation.

The criticisms made of the New Labour project by many at the TUC have struck a popular chord amongst a sector of the electorate who would like to see Labour go in a more traditional social-democratic direction, paying more attention to the poor than to big business, and keeping out of Bush's imperialist adventures.

A perfect recipe for the socialist left to do well one would think? Sadly not. The anti-war vote clearly went to the lib-dems, who made it a campaigning issue. Newsnight showed their glossy and attractive leaflets advising voters to punish Blair for Iraq by voting for them. The Socialist Alliance came fifth with 1.7% of the vote, beaten by the Greens. So the SA was not even the second choice of the anti-war voters.

The SA is led by many of the same people who lead the mass movement around the Stop the War Coalition, which saw millions take to the streets. But clearly not many of those from Brent who marched on February 15th voted SA.

It is true that voters in by-elections are more likely to back the opposition party who are best placed to win. Quite possibly many of those who sympathised with the SA voted lib-dem. But the low vote indicates that even this doesn't account for the poor showing of the socialist left. Quite simply, they lack credibility amongst the electorate.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that on that same February 15th demo Charles Kennedy, lib-dem leader, was one of the headline speakers, whilst there were no SA speakers. SWP members were discouraged from distributing SA material and told instead to concentrate on selling Socialist Worker. After all, this was the big chance for the "revolutionary party". The truth is that organisations that only exist at election time do nothing to earn people's trust or support. In fact the reality is that few voters will have heard of them.

Another factor is the continuing division amongst the English left. The Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour Party both contested this seat and there were also individuals describing themselves as 'Independent Labour' and 'Anti-War and Anti-Privatisation'. Why should voters have any faith in groups who can't even get it together to agree amongst themselves? It's hardly inspiring. The contrast with the gains made in Scotland by the SSP couldn't be clearer, where a united left has made a breakthrough that has put socialist ideas back on the agenda and is forcing policy changes on issues like the detention of refugees.

No, we haven't got all the answers and yes there are significant differences in politics between England and Scotland. But without credibility there is no future for the English left. It's time to get serious about building a united, pluralistic party for ALL the left in England.

:: Alister | 12:24 pm | save this page to del.icio.us Save This Page | permalink⊕ | |


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